Food courts in Sydney—when did they get so cool? The former generic shopping centre lunches of your childhood, dripping with mysterious bain-marie sauces and dried-out focaccias, have become pilgrimages for big appetites and small budgets. Some of the best and most affordable food in Sydney is found in the most humble of environments, and the most rugged of terrains—weaving between strewn chairs and tables while shakily carrying a tray of boiling-hot noodle soup should be considered an Olympic sport.
The majority of decent courts o’ food in Sydney lie in Chinatown, clustered around the Dixon Street arcade, with a focus on Asian cuisine. They attract international students from nearby universities who know good cooking when they taste it.
To maximise your food court experience, here is a simple set of rules for first-timers and veterans alike:
#1 Do a lap
Like hunting down the perfect Easter Show showbag, you’ve gotta take the time to choose the right one. Do a tour, and take note of the standout stalls. Chances are, if it’s doing a roaring trade, it serves a good feed.
#2 Eat with your eyes
Those blown-up pictures on the wall menus are big for a reason—it’s most likely the stall’s specialty dish.
#3 When in doubt, ramen
Either the best food courts have amazing ramen stalls, or the amazing ramen stalls make them the best food courts. It’s a chicken-and-tamago situation.
#4 Stake a table
If it’s rush hour, and you’re hunting in a pack of two or more, take turns to order while the other minds the seat. Try to stake out a table in close proximity to your favoured store.
#5 Don’t be a grub
If there’s a bin for scraping and stacking your trays, use it. If you see a table-cleaner doing the rounds, show some respect by piling your dishes into easy-to-clear stacks.
Got the rules? Let’s go.
The upper levels of Market City just haven’t been the same since Galaxy World closed, and downsized to the tame-sized arcade substitute that’s there today. Luckily, the food court is still going strong. Follow your nose—each stall emits a distinct and delicious smell. Bo 7 Mon Thanh Tam, to the right of the entrance, has been making some “Sydney’s best pho” lists of late. Despite its odd syntax, Top Choice Sizzling and Hotplate do a mean—you guessed it—sizzling hot plate heaped with garlic, shallots and marinated meats. Keeping with the self-acclaimed theme, Super Chef BBQ do a roaring trade in noodle soups, topped with Chinese barbecued duck or pork. Hakata-Maru recently rolled out a new menu, with a choice selection of tonkatsu ramens for around a tenner a bowl. Keep an eye out for their monthly specials, too.
Head down the stairwell at Dixon Street, past the neon Welcome sign, and round the corner to this underground haven. It features clustered tables, uncomfortable chairs, low ceilings, and is basically as crowded as f—k, but damn the options are good. Chinese international students are in-the-know with the Harbin-style hotpot at Yang Gou Fu Ma La Tang. Fill your provided metal bowl from the buffet of greens, bamboo shoots, and noodles on display, staff weigh your bowl, and turn your ingredients into spicy broth swimming with nutrients and good stuff. Ramen O-San’s ‘light’ tonkatsu ramen is still creamy without being cloying, topped with thinly sliced fatty pork and a garnish of bamboo and pickled ginger. Keep an eye on the space opposite the no-frills bar—there’s a taco joint, Ghost Boy, opening there soon, from the ex-owner of The Wedge.
After the claustrophobia of Dixon House, the upstairs Sussex Centre food court is a sigh of relief. It’s clean and well-lit, and you can pick a window spot that overlooks Sussex Street. A lot of diners choose this spot less for the views, and more its proximity to Ramen Ikkyu. Fill up your bellies with paitan-style broth (pork and chicken bones, and seafood), and if you’re still hungry, you can score a extra free serve of the house-made ramen noodles. Elsewhere in the court, $14 bags you a whole fried fish (a whole fish!) with rice and soup from Yummy Thai, while the jarring yellow menu at Cafe de Relax does weird Hong Kong-Portuguese-Western fusion food. It’s quite... something. Beware at the Chinese stalls Fung Shing Gourmet. If you stare at the menu too long, they’ll make try to make you buy something. But their duck noodle soup is pretty delicious so it’s not the worst thing to happen.
Food aside, there are three amazing things about Eating World, 1. the smug-looking scientist-chef-orange mascot, 2. the orange soup spoons, 3. the slogan at Centa Bar: ‘positive drinking’. I like their thinking. Hit up Thai Cave for some less-familiar Thai dishes (and more whole-fish love), or Red Charcoal BBQ for smoky food-on-sticks. But who are we kidding, this place is on the map because of Gumshara. Get your monthly collagen-soup hit here, and watch the multi-tasking ramen chefs in wonderment.
Yes, it’s a glossy temple of consumerism, but they’ve done a snazzy food court fit-out. You can give most of the shopping centre food court standards a miss, and head straight to the dumpling glory of Din Tai Fung. Get your soup-dumpling on without the hour wait at its World Square restaurant. Though not technically part of the food court ecosystem, the famous Tim Wo Han recently opened up a 14-seat diner on the same floor. The also-technically-not-in-the-food-court Ippudo does a dense bowl of ramen in modern surrounds, though the prices are a step up from your usual food court fare. If sandwiches are on your mind, Reuben and Co. does a fancy Reuben ‘wich with wagyu salt beef.
The Central Park development took away our beloved Clare Hotel (the real one), but it has bestowed us Spice Alley, a romantic, pokey corridor of Southeast Asian culinary delights. ‘Food court’ is too generic a term—it’s a maze of stalls and seating in amongst heritage terraces. The food offerings comes from the who’s who of Sydney’s Asian restaurants scene. Hong Kong Diner (Old Town) serves up classic Cantonese fare; Bang Luck (Mama’s Buoi) does a moreish mussel pancake; Old Jim Kee (Uncle Jim’s) a smoky char kway teow and teh tarik; and head to Alex Lee Kitchen for tasty Hainan chicken rice. They’ve done a lot with a small space, but it never feels crowded. PS. it’s a cashless venue—get out your plastic.
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